Lesson 3: Was the Ulster Covenant important and why is the signing of it commemorated by sections of the NI community today?


The way in which a past event or person is commemorated reveals a great deal about how our sense of identity has been influenced and constructed.

This work may cover two or more lessons.  Pupils first examine a commemorative plate celebrating the diamond jubilee of Queen Victoria’s in 1887 (Alternatively teachers could use the context of Queen Elizabeth 11 Diamond Jubilee in June 2012). Pupils then move on to examine sources relating to the 100th anniversary of the signing of the Ulster Covenant. They will explore the reliability of some primary sources of evidence in the context in which they were written before being given opportunities to make their own judgements. Teachers will need to use their professional judgment as to how much background information onIreland 1900 -1912 their class may require before beginning the work. Alternatively teachers may begin the lessons first and then provide pupils with opportunities to contextualise the sources as the lessons proceed.


Teacher explains that the purpose of the lesson is to work as an historian and to investigate historical sources to help answer questions about the past. There are four stages which the children will have to work through.

Pupils are presented with an image of QueenVictoria’s commemorative plate (Resource 4) designed in 1887 to celebrate her sixty years on the throne. Pupils might be asked:

  • What do you see?
  • What symbols can you identify on the plate?
  • Who do you think made the plate?
  • What do you think is the key message?
  • Do you think a commemorative plate was a good way to celebrate Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee?
  • Can you suggest any other reason why the plate was produced?

Teacher explains that this commemorate plate is what historians would describe as a ‘primary source’ of evidence produced and created at the time of an event. Teacher reminds children that by asking questions about the commemorative plate they have begun to work as historians, carrying out research.

Stage 1: Asking the right questions

Pupils examine a photograph of Edward Carson signing the Ulster Covenant at the City Hall Belfast in September 1912. Teacher can access prior knowledge by asking if the children recognise anyone in the photograph and if the photograph is a primary or secondary source?

Children discuss in pairs:

  1. How would you describe the photograph, for example is it old or new?
  2. What details can you see in the photograph, for example objects/flags/furniture/figures?
  3. What other information can you discover about the photograph, for example the period of time/ location/ who took the photograph or reason the photograph was taken?
  4. Does anyone know what was happening in Ireland at the time the photograph was taken?
  5. How could we find out more background information about this source? What questions do we want to ask about it?

Teacher explains that historians call this background information historical context.

After carrying out research children share what they have found out.  The teacher helps the class to pull together the key points.

  • What new information can they now include about the photograph
  • As a result of their research would they revise or change any of their initial ideas about the photograph?

Stage 2: Digging deeper with our questions

Teacher explains that some primary sources (such as photographs) cannot speak for themselves and so must be ‘interpreted’ in order for us to understand them. Teacher explains that historians use a number of key questions when they want to interpret historical sources. In pairs the children are asked to work through the answers to the questions below.

  • Who took the photograph? What do you know about this person?
  • Where and when was the photograph taken?
  • Why was the photograph taken? Who was it for? (the audience)
  • In what ways was it meant to influence its audience?

Each pair shares their answers and adds to their ideas in light of new information from other groups.

Stage 3: How do we know if sources are reliable?

Teacher explains that one way of checking the reliability of a source is to compare it with other sources made or written at the time.  Pairs of pupils are provided with 3 additional sources.  Each pair is asked to consider how useful and reliable they think each of the sources are in helping them to decide about how important the signing of the Ulster Covenant event was and to give reasons for their answers. Children could use the grid below (or one similar) to answer the questions

Title of source What each source tells us about the Ulster Covenant How is each source similar or different
2 Photographs of Edward Carson signing the Ulster Covenant in the city hallBelfastin 1912.
3 A page advertising a Unionist rally in support of the Ulster Covenant in 1912.
4. An extract from a letter written by an eye witness to the signing of the Ulster Covenant in 1912.

Stage 4: Reaching Conclusions

Now pupils have worked through the same processes as a historian they are ready to reach their own conclusions. A ‘washing line strategy’ might be used to structure their conclusions.

One side of the room is labelled RELIABLE and the other side is labelled UNRELIABLE. Teacher refers to the question, “Was the Ulster Covenant important?” The pupils then take each of the four sources and decide where they would place them on the washing line in terms of how reliable they were to help them answer that question. It may be useful for teachers to ask pupils what would happen if the question was changed, for example, to, “Was the Ulster Covenant a success?”. The sources might need to be moved and re-evaluated along the line- it all depends on the question!


Historians call their conclusions interpretations. The children write their own interpretation of the question, “What can historical sources tell us about the Ulster Covenant?”

Some interpretations might be read aloud, and discussed by the class

  • What did they learn from the process of working in the same way as a historian to create an interpretation.
  • Why it is important not to rely too much on a text book for information about the past?
  • Can they suggest some other topics where they might use these methods?

Extension work

Teachers may wish to explore some of the more contentious aspects of commemoration of the Ulster Covenant. For example, the same questions can be used to de-construct, for example, a modern wall mural commemorating the UVF. Activities, such as these, guide and direct children to the realisation that all history is created, and is open to interpretation and questioning.